(2021) C. K. McDonnell, Transworld, £14.99, hrdbk, 425pp, ISBN 978-1-787-63335-3
There are Dark Forces at work in our world (and in Manchester in particular) and so thank God The Stranger Times is on hand to report them. A weekly newspaper dedicated to the weird and the wonderful (but more often the weird) of modern life, it is the go-to publication for the unexplained and inexplicable… At least that’s their pitch. The reality is rather less auspicious. Their editor is a drunken, foul-tempered, and mouthed, husk of a man who thinks little (and believes less) of the publication he edits, while his staff are a ragtag group of wastrels and misfits, each with their own secrets to hide and axes to grind. And as for the assistant editor… well, that job is a revolving door – and it has just revolved to reveal Hannah Willis, who's got her own set of problems. It’s when tragedy strikes in Hannah’s first week on the job that The Stranger Times is forced to do some serious, proper, actual investigative journalism. What they discover leads them to a shocking realisation: that some of the stories they’d previously dismissed as nonsense are in fact terrifyingly, gruesomely real. Soon they come face-to-face with darker foes than they could ever have imagined. It’s one thing reporting on the unexplained and paranormal but it’s quite another being dragged into the battle between the forces of Good and Evil…
My favourite book of all time is The Midnight Examiner by William Kotzwinkle, set in the 1980s when the editor and staff of The Midnight Examiner and its sister publications fall foul of organised crime and come to the aid of a porn star. It is one of the funniest books ever written and my copy includes several of the Examiner’s headlines and a quote from Harlan Ellison. It’s a book I regularly reread, so I was really looking forward to reading The Stranger Times, which I am glad to report is laugh-out-loud funny. No surprise considering it is written by C. K. McDonnell, a former stand-up comedian who performed regularly at the Edinburgh Festival.
Hannah’s husband has been cheating on her, big time, with practically all of their friends so she is in Manchester trying to start new life, and find….gulp, a job. Except, she’s not really qualified to do anything so it is just as well that she finds herself on the doorstep of the newspaper, The Stranger Times, which is based in an old church. Meanwhile one of her soon-to-be colleagues is on the roof about to throw himself off, not that anyone seems that bothered as its a pretty common occurrence, especially before dreaded editorial meetings. She has an interview to be “the new Tina” and surprisingly gets the job despite the protests of the alcoholic, chain-smoking, constantly swearing editor, Banecroft, who used to be a top journalist until his wife died and he climbed into a bottle. Despite his dishevelled appearance, Banecroft notices things and smells a rat when Simon, a young wannabe journalist with The Stranger Times, dies, having thrown himself off a huge tower block. Or did he? Where’s the camera he always had around his neck, and why did he bother to triple-lock his bike when he intended on killing himself? All of that is very strange and things are going to get even stranger as Hannah and her colleagues investigate Simon’s death and start to discover that some of the weird and wonderful stories they have reported on actually have some basis in reality and find themselves in an epic battle between good and evil.
Told over 50 chapters with a prologue and an epilogue and snippets from The Stranger Times’ “best” stories involving a vampire that attacks waxworks, an amorous Loch Ness Monster, and a man possessed by the spirit of David Bowie; oh, and let’s not forget the haunted toilet; The Stranger Times is a hoot. Well written, with great, fully-rounded ensemble characters, combined with a plot that contains tragedy, love, a Beast, and lots of funny one-liners – the scenes involving Loon Day, when The Stranger Times opens its door to the public to hear all their stories are especially funny. More please Mr. McDonnell.
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